Come with us to Lord Murugan’s sanctuary in South Asia’s Garden City of Singapore, with its venerable history, vital present and vigorous future
BY LAKSHMI SRIDHARAN, USA
SINGAPORE, LOCATED AT THE SOUTHERN tip of the Malay Peninsula, is one of only four city-states in the world. Though highly urbanized, it takes pride in being a garden city on an island that is only 25 miles across and 15 miles wide. It boasts the largest port in Southeast Asia and one of the world’s busiest, one reason it has served as a center of trade and civilization for three millennia. This upbeat, prosperous, technologically advanced Asian hub, with just 5.5 million citizens, boasts what is arguably the most progressive Hindu community in the East.
Almost 300,000 Hindus call the island their home. For centuries the nation’s booming economy has attracted people from India to its multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-linguistic society. Here Hinduism thrives, with its distinctive culture, traditions and religious beliefs. Sixty percent of people of Indian origin here are Hindus. In fact, Tamil is one of the four official languages. For nearly two centuries, Singapore’s Hindus have been making tremendous contributions to the state’s culture, economy, education and politics.
We always stop at Singapore on our way to Chennai, India, when we go to visit my sister and other relatives. When I land and walk through this most beautiful airport in the world, I feel the warmth, friendliness, courtesy and efficiency of the airport staff, most of whom are Hindu. Even if you have only a few hours of layover at Changi International Airport, be sure to visit the interesting landmarks in Singapore. You can easily buy a bus pass for a fistful of dollars and go by luxury carriage to visit fascinating places, including the Hindu temples. Singapore has excellent transportation; you can go by road, rail or boat.
Despite its dense population and multi-storied concrete buildings, Singapore remains a garden state. Tropical flora, stately palms, tall trees with huge canopies, colorful bougainvilleas and exotic orchids greet you everywhere, even on the highway. My favorite places include the botanical garden, National Orchid Garden, Japanese and Chinese gardens, the brand new billion-dollar Gardens by the Bay—and, of course, the Hindu temples. Built mostly by the Tamils, these are scattered throughout the city. And unlike the temples in Tamil Nadu, those in Singapore allow anyone—not just the media—to photograph the Deities. Here, no special treatment is given to anyone. You feel that the temple belongs to the devotees—rich and poor alike.
During my December 2013 stopover, we visited the three main sanctuaries: Sri Mariamman Temple, Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple and Sri Thendayuthapani Temple.
The Sri Thendayuthapani Temple is located in a beautiful area close to the river valley on Tank Road, ordinarily a relatively quiet place. Tall avenue trees grace the entry. Built in Dravidian style, the temple is considered an architectural treasure. The imposing five-tiered rajagopuram with its ornate Deities welcomes one and all. The halls are supported by huge ornate pillars with various Deities. Its huge wedding hall helps to make it a social hub. Singaporeans believe that cleanliness is godliness, and the inside of the temple is famously spick-and-span.
I was impressed by the contrast with temples in Tamil Nadu. Here there are no beggars on the steps, no hawkers pestering you, no broken coconuts or banana peels. It is green and serene outside as well as inside. I was awestruck by the spaciousness and openness.
A Glimpse of History
The Nattukottai Chettiars of Chettinadu, India, among the early settlers here, have built several temples. These are commonly known as Chettiar temples. Sri Thendayuthapani Temple, among the oldest of these, was built in 1859. In October of 2014 it was declared one of Singapore’s 69 National Monuments. The temple is now legally protected by the Preservation of National Monuments Act. Any renovation now has to be approved by the National Heritage Board’s Preservation of Sites and Monuments division. Sri Mariamman Temple and Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple received this same recognition a few years back. These three Hindu temples play a central role in the cultural, social and religious lives of Singaporeans.
In the mid-nineteenth century, Britain’s East India Company enjoyed a flourishing trade in India, Sri Lanka, Singapore and Malaysia. It brought many Indians to East Asian countries to work in rubber estates as its employees. Meanwhile, the wealthy Nattukottai Chettiars of Tamil Nadu—mostly Saivites, worshipers of Lord Siva—migrated to Singapore as traders, financiers and bankers. The first commercial bank in Singapore was established by Chettiars.
In those days, building a temple for Siva in Singapore was not possible. The Chettiars were advised by Sivachariyars not to build Siva temples, because at that time the Brahmin Sivachariyars—the only priests authorized to perform the major rites in Siva temples—were prohibited from crossing the seas. Instead, the Chettiars were encouraged to establish Lord Murugan temples, because in such temples, pandarams (non-Brahmin priests) could perform the rites. Thus, the Nattukottai Chettiars built temples for Lord Murugan wherever they settled—Burma, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Singapore. In addition to epitomizing the glory of Sri Murugan, these temples play a pivotal role in the social, religious and cultural activities of Tamil-speaking Hindus in these countries.
City citadel: Devotees perform the kavadi penance in the courtyard
The Vel and the Temple
In 1858, under a holy pipal tree (Ficus religiosa) on the bank of a pond near a hill, the Chettiars installed a Vel (spear), a symbolic representation of Murugan, for devotees to worship. This was an ideal location, as a waterfall from the hill filled the tank. Devotees could bathe in the pond and carry water up the hill for religious rituals. Nearby was a railway line connecting Singapore with Malaysia, where there was a large Chettiar community.
One year late, the Chettiars built a temple on Singapore’s Tank Road for Sri Subramanya—another name for Murugan, who is also known as Kandhan, Karttikeya, Thendayuthapani, Shanmugan, Palani and Arumugan. Its grand kumbhabhishekam (temple consecration ceremony) was performed in April, 1859, as recorded in the stone inscriptions found in the temple. The temple’s main Deity is Thendayuthapani, and the Vel represents Lord Murugan in the main sanctum. Many Tamil devotees worship Lord Murugan as the Supreme God.
Keeping pace with the development of Singapore, the prosperous and philanthropic Chettiar community added more and more Deities, along with facilities for devotees and staff. Sanctums for Lord Sundareswarar and Goddess Meenakshi (Siva and Sakti) were built in 1878. Navagrahas (the nine planets) were added later. The 75-foot-tall rajagopuram, the tallest in East Asia, was completed in 1983.
Hundreds of devotees (thousands on festive occasions) flock here from all over the world, attracted by the imposing architecture, beautiful paintings and sculptures, spacious hall for worship and modern amenities. During the Tai Pusam festival, massive crowds come to worship Lord Murugan that He may shower blessings on them to overcome life’s difficulties, whether emotional, financial or physical. This historic temple has been celebrating this festival in Singapore for over 100 years.
T. KAVI/THENDAYUTHAPANI TEMPLE INSET: JAYARADHA SHANKAR
City citadel: The colorful gopuram shows the typical South Indian architecture of Singapore’s temples; (inset) Lord Murugan holding His danda.
Carrying Kavadi for Lord Murugan
On the day of Tai Pusam, devotees perform a special penance, trust that all their problems will melt away when they fulfill this vow. Kavadi in its simplest form consists of carrying a wooden pole with a basket hanging at each end. Offerings such as fruits, rice and milk are held in the basket. Highly elaborate kavadis decorated with peacock feathers and other ornaments are common. Barefoot devotees will walk miles and miles to collect offerings from others. From the day the devotee takes the kavadi vow until the day he performs the penance, he observes strict celibacy, eats simple vegetarian foods, wear a saffron-colored cloth, abstains from intoxicating drink and tries to think only of God.
The day before the festival, the organizers take Lord Murugan on a city procession in the silver chariot on Saik Road to Sri Layan Sithi Vinayagar Temple. The procession returns to Thendayuthapani temple in the evening. On Tai Pusam day, hundreds of devotees carry kavadi, many dancing with joy, shouting “Vel, Vel. Vetri Vel.” Men may pierce their cheeks and chest with small vels, willingly enduring the suffering in fulfillment of their vows.
Reporter Jeannette Tan recently noted that Singapore’s Hindus, far from facing discrimination, enjoy privileged status. She quotes the Minister for Law and Foreign Affairs, K. Shanmugam, regarding a ban on religious foot processions that was implemented after riots in 1964. Shanmugam said Hindus are the only group given an exemption from this ban. They are allowed to hold three major foot processions—Thaipusam, Panguni Uthiram and Thimithi. “When non-Hindu religious groups apply to hold foot processions, they are usually rejected,” he wrote.
Like Hindu temples worldwide, Singapore’s temples promote Indian cultural activities such as festivals, music concerts, religious discourses and dance. They host weddings and conduct all manner of religious rites for the community. In maintaining these traditions, all Hindu temples on this island—and worldwide—act as a bridge connecting devotees to Mother India.
Lord Murugan is God Siva’s Son, variously worshiped as a renunciate, as the King of kings and as Commander in Chief of the celestial armies. Here He is depicted as Skanda, the mighty warrior who fearlessly wields the Vel, the lance of light and spiritual knowledge that overcomes demons and forces of darkness for devotees who—like the man prostrating on the lotus—pray to Him.
From Dancing with Śiva, Hinduism’s Contemporary Catechism